As a teenager, I was part of a traveling mime troupe. I'm surprised at how often the skill set I learned through clowning has helped me in parenting. There are the obvious skills, like juggling and balloon tying, that come in handy when trying to distract a two-year-old. My mime training also means I can call upon a decent death stare when necessary. But the most useful skill thing I've gained from clowning is the license to jump into a situation and change it. Although I hung up my suspenders nearly two decades ago, I try to channel Sparkles the Clown when dealing with a cranky toddler by looking for fun in unexpected places.
So I was thrilled to hear a recent episode of The Longest Shortest Time feature a clown! I highly recommend listening to the episode in the car with kids, who will enjoy all of entertainer Andy Sapora's squeaks, whistles, and farts. I have never heard so cogent an argument for the value of farts: that alone is worth the time to listen. The larger principle Sapora and host Hillary Frank are discussing is "finding the game": how to, in even your darkest parenting moments, get your kids to do what you want...and to have fun doing it. Frank describes five principles of clowning that can help you find and play the game with your kids.
- Complicity: "Although people think you're misbehaving as a clown," Sapora says, "you can't do anything unless the audience wants you to do it." So too with parenting: you need to win over your kids, get "buy in," to get them to do what you want. Absolutely key to "finding the game," then, is finding a game that your kid will want to play.
- Lack of a fourth wall: The second key to finding the game is allowing your audience (in this case your kid) participate. Be willing to let your kid "guide the game," trying new things until you get that all-important complicity.
- Repetition: If something is working, keep doing it!
- Surprise: You may not be carrying size 100 underpants around like Sapora, but as Frank notes, you can surprise your kids out of a tantrum by turning anything in your house into a prop. Just use it in an unexpected way and fold it into your game.
- Permission to break the rules: Part of finding the game might be actually granting permission to your kid to do the thing you don't want him to do. A really hammed-up "Whatever you do, don't do this," followed by an over-the-top response to the kid who will, of course, do "this," can turn that misbehavior into a game.
Toward the end of the episode, I was feeling empowered to turn tantrums into games. But not ten minutes later, when my kid was melting down in the produce section, I couldn't see past my rage to create a game. When we got back into car, it was helpful to hear Sapora offer some reassurance. Finding the game may not work in the moment if both you and your child are already melting down. But in that moment, you can think toward the future and what game you might try pre-meltdown.